“I Enjoy It Somethin’ Terrible.” Studs Terkel Talks to Babe Secoli About Her Work as a Supermarket Checker

The following is from Working, Studs Terkel’s the classic oral history of Americans’ working lives.


Babe Secoli

She’s a checker at a supermarket. She’s been at it for almost thirty years. “I started at twelve—a little, privately owned grocery store across the street from the house. They didn’t have no cash registers. I used to mark the prices down on a paper bag.”

“When I got out of high school, I didn’t want no secretary job. I wanted the grocery job. It was so interesting for a young girl. I just fell into it. I don’t know no other work but this. It’s hard work, but I like it. This is my life.”

We sell everything here, millions of items. From potato chips and pop—we even have a genuine pearl in a can of oysters. It sells for two somethin’. Snails with the shell, that you put on the table, fanciness. There are items I never heard of we have here. I know the price of every one. Sometimes the boss asks me and I get a kick out of it. There isn’t a thing you don’t want that isn’t in this store.

You sort of memorize the prices. It just comes to you. I know half a gallon of milk is sixty-four cents; a gallon, $ 1.10. You look at the labels. A small can of peas, Raggedy Ann. Green Giant, that’s a few pennies more. I know Green Giant’s eighteen and I know Raggedy Ann is fourteen. I know Del Monte is twenty-two. But lately the prices jack up from one day to another. Margarine two days ago was forty-three cents. Today it’s forty­nine. Now when I see Imperial comin’ through, I know it’s forty-nine cents. You just memorize. On the register is a list of some prices, that’s for the part-time girls. I never look at it.

I don’t have to look at the keys on my register. I’m like the secretary that knows her typewriter. The touch. My hand fits. The number nine is my big middle finger. The thumb is number one, two and three and up. The side of my hand uses the bar for the total and all that.

I use my three fingers—my thumb, my index finger, and my middle finger. The right hand. And my left hand is on the groceries. They put down their groceries. I got my hips pushin’ on the button and it rolls around on the counter. When I feel I have enough groceries in front of me, I let go of my hip. I’m just movin’—the hips, the hand, and the register, the hips, the hand, and the register … (As she demonstrates, her hands and hips move in the manner of an Oriental dancer.) You just keep goin’, one, two, one, two. If you’ve got that rhythm, you’re a fast checker. Your feet are flat on the floor and you’re turning your head back and forth.

Somebody talks to you. If you take your hand off the item, you’re gonna forget what you were ringin’. It’s the feel. When I’m pushin’ the items through I’m always having my hand on the items. If somebody interrupts to ask me the price, I’ll answer while I’m movin’.  Like playin’ a piano.

I’m eight hours a day on my feet. It’s just a physical tire of standing up. When I get home I get my second wind. As far as standin’ there, I’m not tired. It’s when I’m roamin’ around tryin’ to catch a shoplifter. There’s a lot of shoplifters in here. When I see one, I’m ready to run for them.

When my boss asks me how I know, I just know by the movements of their hands. And with their purses and their shopping bags and their clothing rearranged. You can just tell what they’re doin’ and I’m never wrong so far.

The best kind shoplift. They’re not doin’ this because they need the money. A very nice class of people off Lake Shore Drive. They do it every day—men and women. Lately it’s been more or less these hippies, livin’ from day to day…

It’s meats. Some of these women have big purses. I caught one here last week. She had two big packages of sirloin strips in her purse. That amounted to ten dollars. When she came up to the register, I very politely said, “Would you like to pay for anything else, without me embarrassing you?” My boss is standing right there. I called him over. She looked at me sort of on the cocky side. I said, “I know you have meat in your purse. Before your neighbors see you, you either pay for it or take it out.” She got very snippy. That’s where my boss stepped in. “Why’d you take the meat?” She paid for it.

Nobody knows it. I talk very politely. My boss doesn’t do anything drastic. If they get rowdy, he’ll raise his voice to embarrass ’em. He tells them not to come back in the store again.

I have one comin’ in here, it’s razor blades. He’s a very nice dressed man in his early sixties. He doesn’t need these razor blades any more than the man in the moon. I’ve been following him and he knows it. So he’s layin’ low on the razor blades. It’s little petty things like this. They’re mad at somebody, so they have to take their anger out on something.

I’m human, I’m working for a living.

We had one lady, she pleaded with us that she wanted to come back—not to have her husband find out. My boss told her she was gonna be watched wherever she went. But that was just to put a little fright in her. Because she was just an elderly person. I would be too embarrassed to come into a store if this would happen. But I guess it’s just the normal thing these days—any place you go. You have to feel sorry for people like this. I like ’em all.

My family gets the biggest kick out of the shoplifters: “What happened today?” (Laughs.) This is about the one with the meat in her purse. She didn’t need that meat any more than the man in the moon.

Some of ’em, they get angry and perturbed at the prices, and they start swearin’ at me. I just look at ’em. You have to consider the source. I just don’t answer them, because before you know it I’ll get in a heated argument. The customer’s always right. Doesn’t she realize I have to buy the same food? I go shopping and pay the same prices. I’m not gettin’ a discount. The shoplifters, they say to me, “Don’t you want for something?” Yes, I want and I’m standing on my feet all day and I got varicose veins. But I don’t walk out of here with a purse full of meat. When I want a piece of steak I buy a piece of steak.

My feet, they hurt at times, very much so. When I was eighteen years old I put the bathing suit on and I could see the map on my leg. From standing, standing. And not the proper shoes. So I wear like nurse’s shoes with good inner sole arch support, like Dr. Scholl’s. They ease the pain and that’s it. Sometimes I go to bed, I’m so tired that I can’t sleep. My feet hurt as if I’m standing while I’m in bed.

I love my job. I’ve got very nice bosses. I got a black manager and he’s just beautiful. They don’t bother you as long as you do your work. And the pay is terrific. I automatically get a raise because of the union. Retail Clerks. Right now I’m ready for retirement as far as the union goes. I have enough years. I’m as high up as I can go. I make $189 gross pay. When I retire I’ll make close to five hundred dollars a month. This is because of the union. Full benefits. The business agents all know me by name. The young kids don’t stop and think what good the union’s done.

Sometimes I feel some of these girls are overpaid. They don’t do the work they’re supposed to be doin’. Young girls who come in, they just go plunk, plunk, so slow. All the old customers, they say, “Let’s go to Babe,” because I’m fast. That’s why I’m so tired while these young girls are going dancin’ at night. They don’t really put pride in their work. To me, this is living. At times, when I feel sick, I come to work feelin’ I’ll pep up here. Sometimes it doesn’t. (Laughs.)

I’m a checker and I’m very proud of it. There’s some, they say, “A checker-ugh!” To me, it’s like somebody being a teacher or a lawyer. I’m not ashamed that I wear a uniform and nurse’s shoes and that I got varicose veins. I’m makin’ an honest living. Whoever looks down on me, they’re lower than I am.

What irritates me is when customers get very cocky with me. “Hurry up,” or “Cash my check quick.” I don’t think this is right. You wait your time and I’ll give you my full, undivided attention. You rush and you’re gonna get nothin’. Like yesterday, I had two big orders on my counter and I push the groceries down, and she says, “I have to be somewhere in ten minutes. Hurry up and bag that.” You don’t talk that way to me or any other checker.

I’m human, I’m working for a living. They belittle me sometimes. They use a little profanity sometimes. I stop right there and I go get the manager. Nobody is gonna call me a (cups hand over mouth, whispers) b-i-t-c-h. These are the higher class of people, like as if I’m their housekeeper or their maid. You don’t even talk to a maid like this.

I make mistakes, I’m not infallible. I apologize. I catch it right there and then. I tell my customers, “I overcharged you two pennies on this. I will take it off of your next item.” So my customers don’t watch me when I ring up. They trust me. But I had one this morning—with this person I say, “How are you?” That’s the extent of our conversation. She says to me, “Wait. I want to check you.” I just don’t bother. I make like I don’t even know she’s there or I don’t even hear her. She’s ready for an argument. So I say, “Stop right there and then. I’ll give you a receipt when I’m through. If there’s any mistakes I’ll correct them.” These people, I can’t understand them—and I can’t be bothered with their little trifles because I’ve got my next customer that wants to get out …

It hurts my feelings when they distrust me. I wouldn’t cheat nobody, because it isn’t going in my pocket. If I make an honest mistake, they call you a thief, they call you a ganef. I’m far from bein’ a ganef.

Sometimes I feel my face gettin’ so red that I’m so aggravated, I’m a total wreck. My family says, “We better not talk to her today. She’s had a bad day.” They say, “What happened?” I’ll look at ’em and I’ll start laughin’, because this is not a policy to bring home your work. You leave your troubles at the store and vice versa. But there’s days when you can’t cope with it. But it irons out.

“When you make a mistake, you get three chances. Then they take it out of your pay, which is right. You can’t make a ten-dollar mistake every week. It’s fishy. What’s this nonsense? lf I give a customer ten dollars too much, it’s your own fault. That’s why they got these registers with the amounts tendered on it. You don’t have to stop and count. I’ve never had such mis­takes. It happens mostly with some of these young kids.”

Years ago it was more friendlier, more sweeter. Now there’s like tension in the air. A tension in the store. The minute you walk in you feel it. Everybody is fightin’ with each other. They’re pushin’, pushin’—”I was first.” Now it’s an effort to say, “Hello, how are you?” It must be the way of people livin’ today. Everything is so rush, rush, rush, and shovin’. Nobody’s goin’ anywhere. I think they’re pushin’ themselves right to a grave, some of these people.

A lot of traffic here. There’s bumpin’ into each other with shoppin’ carts. Some of ’em just do it intentionally. When I’m shoppin’, they just jam you with the carts. That hits your ankle and you have a nice big bruise there. You know who does this the most? These old men that shop. These men. They’re terrible and just jam you. Sometimes I go over and tap them on the shoulder: “Now why did you do this?” They look at you and they just start laughin’. It’s just hatred in them, they’re bitter. They hate themselves, maybe they don’t feel good that day. They gotta take their anger out on somethin’, so they just jam you. It’s just ridiculous.

I know some of these people are lonesome. They have really nobody.

They got one or two items in their cart and they’re just shoppin’ for an hour, just dallying along, talkin’ to other people. They tell them how they feel, what they did today. It’s just that they want to get it out, these old people. And the young ones are rushin’ to a PTA meeting or somethin’, and they just glance at these people and got no time for ’em.

We have this little coffee nook and we serve free coffee. A lot of people come in for the coffee and just walk out. I have one old lady, she’s got no place to go. She sits in front of the window for hours. She’ll walk around the store, she’ll come back. I found out she’s all alone, this old lady. No family, no nothin’. From my register I see the whole bit.

I wouldn’t know how to go in a factory. I’d be like in a prison. Like this, I can look outside, see what the weather is like. I want a little fresh air, I walk out the front door, take a few sniffs of air, and come back in. I’m here forty-five minutes early every morning. I’ve never been late except for that big snowstorm. I never thought of any other work.

I’m a couple of days away, I’m very lonesome for this place. When I’m on a vacation, I can’t wait to go, but two or three days away, I start to get fidgety. I can’t stand around and do nothin’. I have to be busy at all times. I look forward to comin’ to work. It’s a great feelin’. I enjoy it somethin’ terrible.


working pb rev2

Copyright © November 2004 by Studs Terkel. This excerpt originally appeared in Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day And How They Feel About What They Do, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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